Is Abe’s Election a Fatal Error?

Election ballot box
Ballot box by MASA on Wikimedia Commons

Snap elections are one of the most powerful political tools at the disposal of a prime minister in a parliamentary democracy. With only a few weeks’ notice, a leader can dissolve parliament and throw the nation’s political system into campaign mode – capitalizing on a surge in their own popularity, on disarray or scandal on the opposition benches, or on an otherwise generally favorable political environment in order to give their party the best possible chance in the resulting election.

On the surface, the calculus looks straightforward, but mistakes are still made – the most recent famous example being Prime Minister Theresa May’s disastrous snap election in the United Kingdom earlier this year, in which the government threw away its majority and the supposedly chaotic Labour Party opposition pulled itself together and won a large number of seats.

The conventional political analysis of Shinzo Abe’s decision to hold a snap election in October was that the timing is good for the Prime Minister. Poor opinion polling through July had rebounded somewhat following a generally well-received Cabinet reshuffle (which promoted safe, experienced hands over Abe’s personal loyalists) and solid handling of the recent North Korean crisis. The opposition Democratic Party was in disarray, facing defections and in-fighting; and the new national party aiming to ride the wave of Koike Yuriko’s success in Tokyo remained in its infancy. It looked like the right time for an election, giving Abe and the LDP a strong mandate as they enter discussions over constitutional reform and the national budget around the start of next year.

What if the conventional political analysis was entirely wrong? What if, in fact, this snap election is a monumental, career-ending miscalculation on Shinzo Abe’s part? As Theresa May might have mentioned to him during her official visit to Japan recently, elections are a risky business – and if any of Abe’s assumptions and beliefs leading into the decision to dissolve the Diet have been flawed, they could see the LDP lose seats and Abe lose the confidence of his party. Even a slight error in the calculus around the election would weaken the LDP’s grasp on power, raise questions over its mandate for major reform, and embolden opposition forces for the first time in half a decade.

What, then, are the possible pitfalls in Abe’s snap election calculus, and what might the impact of each one of them be?

Koike’s New Party: Growing Up Fast

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike delivered a rare and painful electoral defeat to the LDP in the Tokyo Assembly elections over the summer, with her newly-minted party of neophytes and defectors, Tomin First no Kai (Tokyo Citizens First), becoming the dominant force in the Assembly and pushing the LDP to its worst-ever result in the capital city. Political commentators assumed that she would eventually return to the national stage – Koike was, after all, once tipped to be the LDP’s first female president and Japan’s first female prime minister, and seems not to have lost sight of the latter goal. An inkling of how she might do that came from the creation of a fledgling political force called Japan First, led by former LDP lawmaker Masaru Wakasa and broadly aligned with Koike; but when rumors of an October election spread, Wakasa and a handful of disgruntled conservative defectors from the Democratic Party was about all there was to show for Japan First’s efforts. Holding an election before that force could organize itself into something more formidable is widely speculated to be one of Abe’s key motivations for the timing of his announcement.

What if the conventional political analysis was entirely wrong? What if, in fact, this snap election is a monumental, career-ending miscalculation on Shinzo Abe’s part?

This assumption may already be backfiring on the Prime Minister. The loosely assembled Japan First was replaced this week by 希望の党, the “Party of Hope”, with Koike as its official leader (though she says that she’ll remain governor and won’t stand for a Diet seat in this election) and 14 lawmakers, including more defectors from the LDP, in its ranks. The party claims that it will field dozens of candidates next month – some reports have suggested as many as 60, a number that may grow as the ranks of the Democratic Party empty out (see below) – and will focus much of its efforts in Kanto (the greater Tokyo region), where it is best positioned to capitalize on Koike’s personal popularity.

This will be a test of Koike’s standing with the people of Tokyo; plenty of voices have been raised suggesting that perhaps the Governor might want to knuckle down and focus on challenges like the Olympics and the other many things Tokyo residents elected her to do, rather than toying around with national politics. However, the fundamental forces which pushed Koike and Tomin First into office in Tokyo remain sound; voters are attracted to her profile as a conservative centrist whose policies are not dramatically different from the LDP, but who is less beholden to special interest groups and less stained with corruption than the ruling party. If she can repeat even a proportion of her success in the Tokyo Assembly election in this contest, the LDP risks suffering yet another humiliating defeat in the capital city and its surrounds; if association with her brand reinvigorates the DP defectors who join her, the damage could cut even deeper. This would not only be a death-knell for Abe’s leadership, it would mean that Tokyo joins Osaka and Nagoya as major cities where the LDP is a minority party, adding fuel to the long-term narrative of the LDP being a rural party in an increasingly urban nation.

The Rudderless Democratic Party: Gone

There’s no doubt that the Democratic Party is in a terrible mess, and may not survive the week, let alone the election. After leaking candidates, including senior veterans like Goshi Hosono, to the Party of Hope, newly elected leader Seiji Maehara has effectively hit the self destruct button. The Democratic Party will now not back any candidates in the election; instead, Maehara (who will himself stand as an independent) has advised his party colleagues to either align with the Party of Hope or stand on an independent ticket.

Left-wingers in the Democratic Party were glum about Maehara’s election as leader, fearing that he would cut the party’s electoral ties with other liberal-left opposition forces such as the Japanese Communist Party (whose five to seven million votes could have helped to unseat many LDP lawmakers in close-run races); few, however, would have expected such a jaw-dropping act of democratic sabotage. Elected to run the party and steer it through troubled waters, Maehara has instead chosen to effectively dissolve it (it’s not an official dissolution as yet, for reasons which are undoubtedly related to the DP’s substantial warchest of public campaign funds), pushing his conservative colleagues into Koike’s orbit and kicking left-wingers to the curb.

If this is catastrophic for the Democratic Party, it is also enormously troubling for Abe’s electoral prospects. The election was called on the assumption of facing off against a weak, divided opposition force; the complete disappearance of that force wasn’t in the equations. Instead of Maehara trying to hold together a rag-tag bunch of feuding lawmakers, Abe faces the far more popular and high-profile Koike as the opposition figurehead, leading a party that can pick and choose from among the DP’s candidates and which may (this remains entirely speculative) have an avenue to access the DP’s campaign funds. It was always hard to see the Democratic Party winning any kind of significant victory in this election; its effective exit from the stage may actually be the single best move the party had from the perspective of unseating Abe. It’s hard not to sense the hand of former DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa, whom Maehara has reportedly been in close contact with of late, in these developments; a dramatic and party-destroying move aimed at delivering an enormous electoral upset and unseating a prime minister is very much the kind of politics Ozawa has always rejoiced in, and Ozawa’s substantial skills as a backroom dealmaker are likely to be instrumental in assembling and holding together the coalition that will emerge in the coming weeks.

Elected to run the party and steer it through troubled waters, Maehara has instead chosen to effectively dissolve it, pushing his conservative colleagues into Koike’s orbit and kicking left-wingers to the curb

Ironically, while the Democratic Party’s dissolution threatens Abe’s premiership, it may also support his policy agenda. Koike’s new party is likely to be notably to the right of the LDP in matters of security policy and constitutional revision, and will remain such once it is joined by the DP’s conservative faction. The Party of Hope will likely prove to be a strong ally of whoever succeeds Abe as prime minister (assuming, as seems relatively safe for now, that the LDP stays in power) in terms of pushing constitutional form and a more assertive security posture. On other issues such as nuclear power and taxation it seems set to oppose the LDP’s policy agenda, but these have been far less key to Abe’s strategy in recent years, especially as the Prime Minister has seemed to lose interest in the Abenomics policies that bear his name.

Opinion Polls Favor Abe: Perhaps

A final possible error in the LDP’s calculations regarding the election – though one since overshadowed by opposition developments – relates to the interpretation of opinion polls. There’s no question that Abe and his Cabinet are enjoying better polling now than they did back in July. One can speculate on the reasons, which are likely down to a combination of factors including the reshuffle, North Korea, etc., but one unknown factor absolutely deserves to be built into any assessment – the dead cat bounce. This colorful metaphor refers to a commonly observed statistical phenomenon in finance and opinion polling; just as a dead cat will bounce if you throw it from a sufficient height (and this doesn’t indicate that it’s come back to life), so too will a stock price or an opinion poll rebound for a time after a sharp collapse (and this, too, doesn’t necessarily indicate that it’s come back to life).

It’s not really a technical term, and it’s impossible to say how much of Abe’s improved ratings might be attributed to a dead cat bounce. The risk to the LDP, however, is easy to explain. If this really is a dead cat bounce, it means that North Korea has only been a distraction from the public’s problems with Abe (comprising a handful of overlapping corruption scandals, a sense of high-handedness in his approach to major legislation and, quite likely, simply a degree of fatigue with the long-serving leader); none of these things are forgotten, only set aside temporarily as the North Korea crisis unfolded, and all of them will return with a vengeance on the campaign trail.

The other hard-to-quantify thing in the polling is the extent to which the reaction to North Korea is a kind of “rally around the flag” response; it’s been noted in other countries that unpopular leaders get a strong polling boost when the country is threatened or involved in military action, but the extent of that polling response in nominally pacifist Japan is untested. It’s also possible that voters will seek to punish Abe for calling an election at this point, especially if his opponents get good mileage out of the argument that dissolving the Diet was a deeply irresponsible thing to do while the North Korean situation remains current.

The Outcome

If the worst-case scenario for the LDP for any one of these factors – the Party of Hope being more ready to aggressively contest key seats, the DP’s clearing of the way for Koike’s forces yielding major success for her, or Abe’s polling numbers being weaker than expected – comes to pass, it’s probable that the LDP will lose quite a few seats in the election. They will remain able to govern in all but the extreme outcomes; even if all three worst-case scenarios play out, the LDP would likely retain a majority thanks to Komeito’s votes. However, a prime minister who calls a snap election in which his party loses even a moderately significant number of seats is not long for his position, and that outcome would likely be the end of Abe’s leadership.

The LDP has been careful to try to lowball expectations from the election in the media, but this is a strategy unlikely to bear much fruit; any loss of seats will be perceived as a rejection of Abe, especially since this election has effectively been positioned as a referendum on Abe himself and on his security policies. Nothing short of a catastrophe is likely to change the major beats of LDP policy in the coming months, especially since the Party of Hope is on board with some form of constitutional revision, but the party will likely not accept the continued leadership of a prime minister who ordered an election as a referendum on himself – and lost.

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